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"Fallen Among Thieves" is a classic of the early Victorian crime fiction and offers a splendid country-house murder plot featuring detective John Barman. This is part 3 out of 3, Nemesis!
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Fallen Among Thieves
Vol. 3: Nemesis!
Arthur William A'Beckett
Fallen Among Thieves, Vol. 3
Chapter V. "Doubt Would Kill Me, Darling."
Chapter VI. Freddy Makes A False Move.
Chapter VII. "Poor Dear Leopold!"
Chapter VIII. False Move — Number Two.
Chapter IX. The Fireworks At Stelstead.
Chapter X. "False As Water!"
Book IV. — Nemesis!
Chapter I. Extracts From Miss Ruthven's Diary.
Chapter II. A Meeting At Wiesbaden.
Chapter III. The Hollow Truce.
Chapter IV. Laying The Train.
Chapter V. Sir Ralph Makes A Confession.
Chapter VI. "Oh, Let Me Die!"
Chapter VII. A Desperate Game.
Chapter VIII. Freddy Is Jealous.
Chapter IX. Justice, The Pursuer!
Chapter X. A Strange Dream!
Chapter XI. On The Shore Of The Great Hereafter.
Chapter XII. Death And Cupid!
The Epilogue - A Legacy Of Love!
Fallen Among Thieves, Vol. 3, A. W. A'Beckett
Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9
A month had passed since the interview between Freddy and the detective (narrated in the last chapter of this true and not altogether uneventful history), and most of our dramatis persona were once more at Stelstead. During the month Sir Ralph Ruthven's consent to Leopold's marriage with his ward Florence had been demanded and obtained, and the match had become the talk of the county. The bride's many flirtations, and the bridegroom's numerous thousands, had been discussed over every dinner-table. As Leopold was considered a "new man" by the magnates of the turnip fields (the country gentlemen I mean), it was thought advisable to arrange a grand al fresco ball. At this ball (which was to have been gorgeous in the extreme), the young man was to be introduced to the county, and by them formally "taken up." And at this point I again resume the thread of my story.
Charming weather once more at Stelstead. I am afraid, my dear reader, that you will at length believe that it never rains at this favored spot, because I always commence my allusion to the little village with wordy descriptions of the rays of the sun. It is not my fault; I protest to you, if ever my Romeo and Juliet are caught in a shower, and are consequently laid up with the influenza, on my word of honor, you shall be duly informed of the terrible disaster.
Stelstead Hall was very full of people. First of all, there were the family, — then the family's friends, Leopold and his best man (volunteer), Freddy. Then there were crowds of carpenters, shoals of cooks, and loads of servants — all warranted "from London." The sound of preparation was heard on every side. Some were putting up marquees, others decorating the hall, others making frames for the splendid display of fireworks with which the fete was to be brought to a brilliant conclusion. Stelstead itself was in a furore of excitement. The villagers were mad with joy, and the landlord of the Ruthven Arms was actually charging as much as two shillings a head for a single bed. The draper had started a flag of some unknown country (bought cheap at the auction of a bankrupt sailor's estate), which was currently reported to be the Royal standard of England and Ireland — especially Ireland — and the baker had decorated his shop windows with a number of fancy cards, singing the praises of " Taylor's Hot Cross Buns." From this it will be seen that Stelstead was absolutely wild with delight, and bubbling over with almost frantic revelry.
I am sorry to have to confess it, but to tell the truth, a slight coolness had sprung up between Florence and Leopold. The young man loved his betrothed with all his heart and soul, and Florence seemed very fond of her future husband; but still there was a "something" that marred their joy. The girl was not so demonstrative in her affection as of yore, and seemed almost to dread her lover's eye. The youth was often grave, and seldom smiled. All this and much more had been noted by the attentive Freddy, who rejoiced greatly at the passing (?) shadow, and was exceeding glad.
"I cannot understand it," said Leopold to Edith one day (they often walked together now). "I cannot understand it, but I have a vague presentiment of coming sorrow."
"Sorrow!" she replied, looking up into his face. "What have you to do with sorrow? Why, the whole world is before you. You are young, and love and are beloved."
"Are you sure of that?"
They walked on in silence under the trees, and towards the river's bank. As they neared the water, the sound of voices in earnest conversation caught their ears. The sound was so soft, that it seemed only a murmur of trinkling wavelets.
Edith stopped suddenly, and turned pale. Leopold, seeing her white face, moved towards her with anxious eyes, and outstretched arms.
"It is nothing," she murmured faintly; "I shall be better soon. Come, let us go along that avenue."
She would have walked away, but now it was Leopold's turn to pause. He looked into her eyes, and as the dark, long lashes shielded them from his inquiring glance, strode towards the river.
"Stay," she cried; "do not go that way."
He put her gently from him, and walked on. "Have no fear," he said, and pushed back the branches with his hand.
He stood before them.
Florence rushed towards him, fell into his arms, and burst out crying.
"Don't, my darling, don't," he said in a kindly soothing voice. "I do not doubt you, love, for if I doubted you, it would kill me!"
He stood with her thus, and his arms seem to shield her from the world. Then he turned round, and sternly confronted her companion.
"With an apology to the ladies for smoking, Freddy quietly lighted a cigarette.
Leopold kissed Florence's forehead, and gently led her to Edith. It was a strange sight to watch the two girls as they stood together. The first stern and solemn and dark, the other tearful, bowed down with shame, and fair; — like unto the thundercloud one — like unto the wind-driven lake water the other. Edith received her sister and soothed her; still like the mother and child; but only for a moment, for then she turned away and addressed Leopold.
"For Heaven's sake be calm!" she whispered, "for her sake!" and she pointed to Florence, who stood alone and in tears.
"Have no fear," said the young man, in the cold, passionless tone that at one time was habitual to him, — that tone so well remembered by Edith, recalling to her the hopeless, faithless traveler on board the ' Queen of the West.' "Have no fear. See to your sister, and leave us alone."
He held out his hand, and as Edith clasped it within her own she found it as cold and as clammy as the hand of a corpse. She looked at his face; it was as pale as marble, and as rigid, save about the mouth, where the lips trembled — trembled, but only a little.
"Go with Edith, darling, I will soon follow you;" he said with an effort, and the two girls left him.
He stood watching them as they passed out of sight. When the bushes hid them from his view, lie turned round and confronted Freddy. That charming individual was rather white about the cheeks. Perhaps his pallor might have been attributed to his cigarette, and yet the dear boy was an inveterate smoker.
"Ta, ta, old man," said Holston, with an affectation of unconcern; "I'm off — I think I shall take my gun, and look after the partridges."
There was something almost absurd about this speech; it was so very like Cox's proposal to Box "to take a stroll." If you and I, dear reader, had been there we should have laughed outright, but then we (at least " I speak for myself) are not in love with Florence Ruthven.
"Stay!" said Leopold calmly, but sternly, "I want a word with you."
"As you will," cried Freddy, with a little laugh, and he threw himself on the grass, and lighted a fresh cigarette. "Nothing gives me greater pleasure than a chat with you — you are always amusing."
Leopold looked at the figure lying before him for a second or so, and then murmured, "He is young, and youth is generous; I will try him."
As for Freddy, he puffed away at his cigarette with great assiduity.
"Holston," began Leopold, "when I came to England I hadn't a friend in the world, you know that. We have seen a good deal of each other, and, as far as two men of the nineteenth century can be friends, we have been friends."
"Quite so, dear boy," said Freddy, with something very like a sigh of relief. "You smoke, — have a cigarette?"
Leopold sat down, and accepted mechanically the proffered courtesy.
"When I came down here," he continued, "I came for a purpose. Pardon my frankness, but it was to save Florence Ruthven from contracting a marriage which I knew could only lead to misery. I came here to prevent Florence Ruthven from becoming your wife."
"Thanks, very much."
"I knew that you did not love her; I knew that you did not care for her even as much as the ballet girl whose portrait you still wear in that locket on your watch chain."
"Wrong, my dear boy, I changed the portrait more than a week ago for another. Quite a correct person this time;" he opened the locket as he spoke, but, after glancing at Leopold's stern pale face and hard clenched hands, closed it again.
"You would laugh at me," continued Leopold, "if I told you that I came to save this poor girl from a wretched future out of pure philanthropy."
"Not at all."
"No; it was a selfish motive that brought me here. It matters not when, but once upon a time Florence Ruthven was (as now) betrothed to me."
"You had seen her before you met down here?" cried Freddy, in accents of surprise.
"Yes. I thought my love was dead; I thought that I might safely be near her without feeling a revival of affection. I came here to save a grave from desecration, — to keep an old memory undefiled."
"Thanks awfully for the kind, what do you call it, — simile, isn't it?"
"But I was wrong; I had miscalculated my strength; my old feelings revived, my old love returned."
"I am sure your story is most interesting," said Freddy; "but, really, if you have nothing else to say I think, perhaps, as the end of your little history can keep, you know, and we can't always have fine weather, that I had better seize this opportunity of blazing away at the partridges."
"I have something more to say," continued Leopold, in the calm cold tone with which he had spoken from the first during this interview, "and I wish to be quite frank with you. "We are both young, and — but there, what I wish to say is this, — Florence Ruthven is my affianced wife, and I love her as only a man can love once in his life; it would kill my soul to think that she did not return my affection."
"Don't think it then, my boy."
"I have been long enough in England to have heard stories of your life, Holston, and I know it is in your power to persecute any woman who may cross your path."
"Really, my dear fellow, you seem to know my character to a tittle."
"I wish to deal honestly with you, Holston; and as man to man: I don't want to threaten, — a lady's name should never be mixed up with a brawl. More than this, I would rather trust to your generosity than rely on your fear."
"Thanks, very much. You are really very good."
"You have it in your power to distress Florence by your attentions. You have it in your power to persecute her. She is my wife before Heaven, and this must not be."
"My faith in Florence is unbounded."
"Quite so;" this time with a slight sneer.
"Well, if you will, I am a coward! God pardon me, but I do so fear to lose my jewel of price — my ray of sunshine, that I dare scarcely believe in Heaven itself. Leave us alone, Holston; do not attempt to sow the seeds of sorrow and doubt in our hearts. Be generous; you owe me some reparation for the past; make your reparation thus."
"Owe you reparation!" Again Freddy spoke in accents of surprise.
Leopold was silent. Freddy waited for a moment; then he lighted a fresh cigarette, cleared his throat, glanced sideways at his companion, and began,
"You've been frank, very frank with me, Richard Harwood, and I will follow the fashion, and be equally frank with you."
He paused for a moment, as if he had anything but a pleasant task before him, and rather shrank from the duty that had been forced upon him. This hesitation over, and he continued,
"You've said that we are both men of the world, and you are right; but you left out a distinction. You should have added, that whereas I am a deuced poor man of the world, you are an uncommonly rich one."
Leopold was silent, but his face reflected surprise and curiosity. "Without looking at him, Holston went on half defiantly and half timorously,
"You've said, with some truth, that I don't care, and never did care, a very great deal for Florence Ruthven. The lady isn't here, and so I drop my gallantry, and admit the fact without reservation. I don't care for her more than I care for any other jolly girl with pretty features and a nice figure."
Lawson made a movement of impatience.
"Beg pardon, old fellow," said Freddy, observing this demonstration, "I didn't want to offend you, but I thought frankness was to be the order of the day, and I'm only frank. Well then, as a man of the world, I will put love and passion, and all that stuff, out of the question. I get my love, as you have hinted, like flowers from Covent Garden, and it grows, ripens, and dies at St. John's "Wood. It's merely a question of bracelets and broughams. Love and sixty per cent., separation and the sponging-house. "
And he paused for a moment, laughed, tugged at his tawny moustache, and continued, —
"You have also been good enough to hint at something else equally true, I regret to say. I have it in my power to be disagreeable, more disagreeable than you imagine. Now the question is, shall I be disagreeable or shall I not?"
Leopold was quite silent, but his breath came a little faster than its wont. He turned away from Freddy and clenched his fist. Holston glanced at him sharply and said slowly and with an affectation (mind you, only an affectation) of sang froid,
"Now, I am a poor man and you are rich. I believe in equality, and am a fearful democrat. I reason to myself why should all the money be in one man's pocket? "Why indeed? Is it not the duty of every poor man to attempt to obtain a fairer distribution? Unquestionably. By any means? Certainly by any means."
He paused for a moment and laughed. But, to tell the truth, the laugh was a little forced.
"Well," he began again, "to be quite frank. I only wanted Florence Ruthven for her money. You have got the start of me, and I don't mind giving up the race if you will help me (in a delicate, gentlemanly manner) to carry out my great idea of distributing wealth with a little greater regard to equality. For instance, let us begin with ourselves, — you are a rich man and I a poor one. What do you say?"
Leopold had risen from the ground, but he did not answer. Freddy followed his example and continued, —
"It is only just that you should know what advantages you will gain by this little scheme. By good fortune I have a weapon that I can use against the uncle. Sir Ralph Ruthven is in my power. As men of the world we both of us can see that it is possible (girls are so silly, you know), that it is possible, I repeat, that the niece may step in to save the uncle. Now, five thousand pounds with your wealth is very little to you; and yet if you were to pay the sum in to my hankers, you would assist very greatly in bringing to pass my pet scheme of pecuniary equality for all men. What do you say?"
"What do I say!" thundered out Leopold, trembling with passion and indignation. "Why, this. I will give you just half an hour to pack up and leave this house, and if you are not gone by that time — "
"I will kick you out of the place with the thickest boots I can find, and supplement the attention with as sound a horsewhipping as you ever had in your life!"
Leopold drew out his watch, marked the time, and then with an expression of supreme contempt turned on his heel and walked leisurely away.
And what was Freddy doing?
Nothing! He was as white as a sheet, and trembled like an aspen. Help me to laugh at him, reader, as he stands there like a beaten cur. And yet it is a painful sight. Those few unresented words of Leopold had deprived Freddy of all his manhood, all his self-respect. He was a coward! Good heavens, a paltry miserable coward! Look at his contorted features, at his trembling lips. Stay, though, — turn away, for pity's sake turn away, — the poor cur is crying! For the moment I really feel for him, — it is so painful to see manhood dethroned, to listen to the sobbing of a degraded fellow-creature.
Freddy's emotion did not last for long. He soon regained his calmness.
"Thank God," he murmured, "no one overheard him. After all, what does it matter?"
He walked away with a clouded face, stopping every moment to ponder.
"I have been a fool," he cried at last, "a stupid, clumsy fool. I have shown my cards and lost the game."
He walked on in the direction of Stelstead. As he passed through the park gates, he looked in at the lodge and requested that his servant might be found and told to join him at the Ruthven Arms. Then he continued his journey.
In due course he arrived at the inn. He ordered a bed, and sat in the coffee-room. Then he asked for some note-paper and an envelope. After a few minutes' delay they were carried in to him by his servant, who, to tell the truth, had been drinking at the bar when summoned to attend upon his master.
"I shall sleep here tonight," said Freddy. "Just go up to the Hall and pack up my things and bring them here."
"Yes, Sir," rejoined the man, without showing the slightest astonishment at the order.
"I shall have a letter for you to carry. Look in before you go."
"I have failed with him," murmured Freddy when the man had left the room. "My remaining chance is with her;" and then he took up his pen, thought for a moment, and began writing.
"Give this to Miss Florence," said he, when his servant returned; "you need not let any one know about it. You understand."
The man bowed and left the room.
"There," he murmured, when he was once more alone; "I have done my best — the rest I must leave to the devil!"
You see he alluded to the spirit of evil — a fact that proves that his religious education had not been neglected.
Edith and Florence returned to the house almost in silence. They passed through the park with its wide-spreading trees and autumn-tinged leaves, its yellowish grass and tangled brushwood; over the lawn, where the laborers were at work erecting the frames for the fire-works ordered for the quickly approaching fete; past the site of the old Raymond murder, across the terrace, and into the house.
"Father Dutton is here, Miss," said a servant to Edith as the two girls entered.
"I have shown him into the drawing room."
"Tell him, please, that I will be with him directly." The man walked away to do her bidding as she left the hall and ascended the staircase. After a few minutes she proceeded to the apartment into which the priest had been shown, entered the room, and gave him welcome.
"I am so glad you have come, Mr. Dutton," she said. "You received my note?"
"And am here in consequence. But first, how are your uncle and sister? I have not seen Miss Florence for an age. Is the day fixed for the happy event?"
A shadow passed over Edith's face as he said this. She spoke calmly, however.
"I believe for the end of next month. My uncle is tolerably well, and as for Florence, I expect her down soon and then she will be able to speak for herself."
There was an awkward pause here, and then Edith continued, —
"I sent to you, Mr. Dutton, because I wished to ask your advice. I am living in a world of difficulties, and know not what to do? The responsibility that has been thrust upon me is more than I can bear. Will you, honest, noble-hearted gentleman that you are, help me to bear it?"
"Most assuredly," replied the priest. "You may rely on my best services, Miss Ruthven."
"1 can trust you implicitly, — nothing will make you reveal what I am about to tell you?"
"I have had the honor of wearing her Majesty's uniform," said the priest, tugging at an imaginary moustache, "and — "
"Pardon me," interrupted Edith with a blush, "but I have been so deceived that I can scarcely trust any one. You have forgiven me?"
"My daughter, — I beg pardon, I should say Miss Ruthven," murmured the worthy Father, already ashamed of his show of wrath. "You have given me no cause for anger."
"Thanks, a thousand thanks," said Edith, "and now I will speak unreservedly. You remember the night of Emma Barlow's death?"
The priest inclined his head.
"You remember the conversation that passed between that woman and my uncle? Yes, I see you do. Well, I have discovered the secret hidden from us on that dreadful night."
"What!" exclaimed the priest, "have you found Sir Ralph's son — your cousin?"
"Yes. And my discovery troubles me sorely, oh, so sorely. Promise me that you will consider the story I am about to narrate as sacred as the secrets of your own confessional, and you will indeed deserve my gratitude."
"I promise," replied the priest, with a slight tug at his imaginary moustache.
And then Edith began. It was a long story, and a story that moved Father Dutton strangely, — a story that I shall tell myself ere I lay down my pen and bid adieu to my readers. The priest turned very pale as the narrative was brought to a conclusion, — he turned pale, I say, and trembled.
"What shall I do?" cried Edith when her tragic tale was over; "what shall I do? I dare not tell him, knowing what he knows. Tell me, Father Dutton, what shall I do?"
The priest was silent for a minute, rapt in deep, deep thought, and then he said, —
"My daughter, let the dead bury the dead. Bury your secret in Emma Barlow's grave."
Shortly after this, Father Dutton took his leave, and Edith was left alone.
"Yes, it is better that it should be so," murmured the girl, as she looked drearily out on the park as the sunshine faded into twilight, "but how hard it is to live!" —
"I am weary, I am weary,
I would that I were dead!"
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